Europe's E. Coli Outbreak: It Could Happen Here

Are sprouts wreaking havoc abroad? Unclear. But one thing's for certain—the U.S. could experience a similar disaster.

AP11060612145_wide.jpg

A German doctor prepares to treat an E. coli patient with dialysis equipment. Gero Breloer/AP


I haven't said anything about the E. coli 0104 crisis in Germany up to now because I've been waiting for the evidence. Without evidence, the source of the outbreak remains uncertain.

Yesterday, the German minister of agriculture announced that sprouts are the cause. But are they?

What is known without question is that the outbreak is deadly serious. Bill Marler reports these shocking numbers as of June 5:

Deaths: 22 (21 in Germany, one in Sweden)

Illnesses: 2,243 (2,153 in Germany, and 90 more in 10 other European nations and the U.S.)

Cases of Hemolytic Uremia Syndrome (HUS): 627

Why shocking? This is a devastating disease, excruciatingly painful, with a high probability of causing lifelong complications. And the disease is almost entirely preventable by following standard food safety procedures.

The idea that the cause is sprouts, and German sprouts at that, comes as a surprise. Why?  First, sprouts are a frequent cause of foodborne illness and should have been high on the list of suspected foods. Second, sprouts did not turn up in the case-control studies.

Instead, investigators examined cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes (and, in the process, put Spanish cucumber producers out of business). As Marler explains, the German authorities didn't want to take a chance, given the results of their investigation.

The case-control investigation was conducted by the Robert Koch Institute, the German equivalent of our CDC.

  • The cases: From May 29 to June 2, investigators interviewed 46 affected patients from Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck about the foods they had eaten.
  • The controls: They interviewed 2,100 people who were not sick but were of similar age group, sex, and region of residence.
  • The results:

Food Reported Eaten         % By Cases     % By Controls

Lettuce                                        84                           47

Cucumbers                                 75                           50

Tomatoes                                   80                            63

95 percent of the Cases had eaten at least one of the three vegetables.

This evidence strongly implicates these vegetables. But did they not look for sprouts?

In another related study of people from a Frankfurt business company who had become ill, those who had eaten from the salad bar in the company cafeteria had a seven-fold increased risk of developing bloody diarrhea than those who had not. No such association was seen for other foods investigated, such as dessert, fruit, and asparagus. Sprouts are not mentioned.  How come?

In trying to figure out what's going on here, a BBC World News report raises even more questions (my emphasis):

The agriculture minister for Lower Saxony, Gert Lindemann, said there was a clear trail of evidence pointing to a plant nursery south of Hamburg [as the source of the contaminated sprouts].

The nursery has been closed, though officials say the outbreak's source cannot yet be definitively confirmed.

... Mr Lindemann said epidemiological studies all seemed to point to the plant nursery in Uelzen in the state of Lower Saxony, about 100km (62m) south of Hamburg - though official tests had not yet shown the presence of the bacteria there.

"Further evidence has emerged which points to a plant nursery in Uelzen as the source of the EHEC cases, or at least one of the sources," he said.  [What evidence?]

...Gert Hahne, a spokesman for the Lower Saxony agriculture ministry, earlier told the Associated Press news agency that many restaurants in which people ate before becoming ill had recently taken delivery of the sprouts. [Guilt by association]

He said authorities would still maintain a warning against eating tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce.

The health ministry in Berlin said it was still waiting for results from tests on the beansprouts, Germany's DPA news agency reported.

And the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's national disease centre, was also reported as saying that the cause of the outbreak could not yet be confirmed.

So: Are sprouts the cause?

By this time, the outbreak is slowing down as the contaminated foods make their way through the food supply.

Could this happen here? You bet.

If ever there was a time to give the FDA more resources, now is it. The FDA now has the authority to impose standard food safety procedures on food producers and to require safety measures for the foods we import. But Congress wants to cut the agency's budget, and badly.

Now would be a good time to let congressional representatives know that we need a stronger FDA. And while you are at it, let the USDA know that you think it would be a good idea to regulate other forms of toxic E. coli as adulterants in the same way they regulate E. coli 0157:H7. There is plenty government could do right now to protect us from outbreaks like this one.

A word about sprouts:

How come sprouts are such frequent sources of food safety problems?

Sprouts are grown from tiny seeds that are impossible to wash thoroughly enough to ensure that they are free of harmful bacteria. The seeds are sprouted in water that must be changed several times a day. This water is an excellent growth medium for bacteria. That is why FDA guidance says sprout producers ought to test the wash water for harmful bacteria.

Under the new legislation, the FDA has the authority to enforce this guidance. But does it have adequate personnel? Unlikely, given the current stance in Congress.

Update:

This just in: No, it's not sprouts, according to Food Chemical News:

The news coming from Germany continues to evolve, changing with each passing hour, with investigators seemingly moving closer to the source of an outbreak that now is blamed for more than 2,000 illnesses, including nearly 630 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and 22 deaths. The latest news, reported this morning by both the Associated Press and BBC, is that 23 of 40 samples of organic sprouts taken from the Gaetnerhof farm in the Lower Saxony region of Germany have tested negative for the bacteria. Tests on the other samples have yet to be returned.

This post also appears on Food Politics.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In